Homeowners have long entrusted a friend or the kid down the street with a few bucks and the responsibility to watch their house while the owner is away.
Dean Thomas believes there's a need for a more sophisticated house-sitting service.
In February he started a business called Thomas Home Watch, which provides a whole host of services to vacationers and snowbirds leaving their homes in central and east Pasco.
Outside he checks for things like debris, landscaping, or sprinkler problems, vandalism and storm damage. Inside the house, he inspects for pests, odors, mold and leaks. He runs the water, keeps an eye on appliances and lights, and waters the plants. Thomas also offers handyman services when needed.
He acts as the eyes and ears of the homeowner, sending them regular reports, complete with photos, to let them know how their house is doing.
Thomas, who owns an unoccupied home in Costa Rica, sympathizes with absentee homeowners' plight.
"I worry about it," he said. "You're not sure of who you can trust to really take care of it."
Thomas, 47, has a degree in business management from the University of Central Florida, as well as experience remodeling and maintaining his five rental properties in Pasco for the past decade. With the help of his uncle, Harold Thomas, he built the home in Wesley Chapel where he's lived for the past 13 years.
"This is right up my alley, to put it simply," Thomas said. "This has been a perfect, natural fit for me to do this. It's kind of what I've done my whole life."
His service is the only one in Pasco to be accredited by the National Home Watch Association.
"We do have a lot of seasonal residents in this area, and a lot of people who take extended vacations who could benefit from having a trusted professional come in," Thomas said.
Pasco County could be fertile ground for a home-watch business.
More than 15,000 Pasco homes belong to owners with an out-of-state address, according to property appraiser records. That number reflects investment owners who rent out the property and seasonal residents. Snowbirds often enlist their neighbors to house sit, but Thomas said neighbors may not be trained to know what to look for, aren't licensed, bonded, or insured, and can't be available to give updates regularly.
As with any startup company, though, success depends on providing a service the market needs. John Copeland, a member of the Lake Heron Homeowners Association and president of the Pasco Alliance of Community Associations, said his wife and two friends started a similar business in Carrollwood 17 years ago, taking care of clients' pets and homes while they were away.
"Because we traveled a lot and one of the other women traveled a lot, they knew there was a market out there," said Copeland.
But even though the women saw a need, their business struggled. They had no more than a dozen customers over the course of their two-year run.
"Conjecture would say that they didn't market it broadly enough," he said. "They were all based in Carrollwood, so that was where they wanted to find customers."
Thomas Home Watch serves a broad area, including Land O'Lakes, Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills, Dade City and San Antonio. Thomas is a member of the Dade City Chamber of Commerce and has spread the word about his business through advertisements in homeowners association newsletters and targeted mailings to communities like Lake Jovita, Lake Bernadette and Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club. In the future, Thomas says he would consider expanding to Hillsborough County.
Once the real estate market evens out, a home-watch business might also find clients among homeowners who have moved away while their Pasco County home remains on the market. But there aren't many homes like that now, said Ed Anderson, president of the Central Pasco Association of Realtors and broker and owner of Action 100 Realty. Many of the empty homes now are bank-owned foreclosures and short-sales — instances where the owners wouldn't be interested in paying a service to watch the property.
The small amount of homes that are available, he says, are being snapped up by big investor companies, who plan to rent them out.
"He's got a great idea, but I think it's probably something (for) maybe a year from now, when we get more real properties, and less of the investors," Anderson said.
Thomas has just started building his business, but believes it will grow if he provides a needed service that people can trust.
"They're giving you the keys to their house, that's why you have to make sure to do business with honesty and integrity," he said.
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6235.